Creating human connections

Giller Prize-winning author Lynn Coady speaks at Dal

- March 12, 2014

Lynn Coady loves "disappearing into an idea." (Jason Franson photo)
Lynn Coady loves "disappearing into an idea." (Jason Franson photo)

“I like listening to the best work of young people doing their undergraduate degrees, because I think at that stage people have developed to the point where they produce some very remarkable things,” says English Professor Bruce Greenfield of this weekend’s Annual Atlantic Undergraduate English Conference (AAUEC) at Dal.

Now in its 33rd year, the conference draws students from throughout Atlantic Canada to share academic and creative works with their peers. For the past dozen years, the conference has included creative writing in the program. It’s an addition that Dr. Greenfield, the faculty member of this year’s organizing committee, sees as a really positive development.

“I’ve heard some very impressive work at these conferences and that’s exciting,” he says. “You think, ‘Well maybe I just heard the work by somebody who, in a few years, will be a published and publicly acclaimed author.’ ”

Insights into the creative process

One such acclaimed author, Lynn Coady, will share her wisdom on Friday night. The Nova Scotia native was the winner of the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her collection of short stories, Hellgoing. She says, in her own experience, writing has always been a very solitary process.

“I’m not a big sort of researcher in my fiction,” she says. “I tend to just go into a hole for a long time — a little too long sometimes. And then once I finish the bulk of the work, that’s when I go out into the world.”

It’s exactly this constant reaching for connection that Coady finds so fascinating about the human condition. “Everybody’s trying to feel comfortable in their world and comfortable in their skin. And for whatever reason, they just can’t settle into it. So often that has to do with the people around them — the impossibility of human connection.”

Like most artists, Coady loves the creative process. “I just love kind of disappearing into an idea and that feeling of not really knowing why the idea compels me so much,” she says. “It’s really mysterious and exciting. It gives me a sense that I’m communing with something larger than myself, not necessarily God, but I’m communing with my own subconscious, with a consciousness that knows more than my conscious mind and is going to lead me in certain directions. I can’t think of any other human experience that gives you that feeling.”

Questions of interpretation

In Coady’s stories, readers are urged to interpret and make sense of the messes the characters have made. In undergraduate English conferences, attendees are called upon to interpret and question the work of their peers.

“Even though they take classes together, I think often students work in relative isolation,” says Prof. Greenfield. “In this context, instead of writing an essay, handing it to a professor who reads it and hands it back with some comments, you present it to a room full of people, and you migrate around listening to other people doing the same thing.”

Throughout the weekend, there will be 12 academic panels and five creative ones. Each panel allows a 15-minute presentation for each of its three presenters, followed by a question period that’s guided by a session chair. The sessions are open to the public, as presenters’ peers, friends, and family are encouraged to attend.

Prof. Greenfield doesn’t necessarily think the conference is competitive, but it gives a window into the different levels of achievement going on around Atlantic Canada.

“One of the experiences of coming to a good university is that, all of a sudden, your peers are all the smartest kids in the school,” he says. “And this conference is the crème de la crème in the sense that it’s the smartest kids in the universities of the region showing up to not duke it out but to share their work with each other.”

Lynn Coady's talk is open to the public on Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Scotiabank Auditorium (Marion McCain Building). Saturday night’s dinner banquet in the Great Hall of the University Club includes a spoken word performance by Halifax’s Poet Laureate El Jones and a set by the 2012 winners of Dal’s Got Talent, The Royal Thymes, followed by a dance with DJ.


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